One of college basketball’s great strengths is the huge variety of teams and players, providing somebody for every fan to root for. Even with so much talent spread around so many schools, though, some players manage to stand out as the defining stars of a given season.
One player who’s already shown a talent for separating himself from the pack is Kentucky freshman Julius Randle. One of six McDonald’s All-Americans on his own roster, the high-scoring PF has placed himself a cut above his impressive classmates with two dominant showings on the young season.
Read on for more on Randle and 19 more players whose performances will write the stories of 2013-14 on the college hardwood.
It’s too early to say that transfer Joseph Young will do for Oregon what transfer Mark Lyons did for Arizona last season.
However, the former Houston guard—and one of the Pac-12’s top newcomers of this year—will certainly be a major source of points and highlights in Eugene.
Young scored 18 points per game as a Cougar last season, and few Pac-12 defenses are sturdy enough to put much of a cramp in his style.
He’s the rare college junior who combines a great outside shot (.420 from deep as a sophomore) and the ability to attack the rim in earnest (12-for-12 free throws in Oregon’s season opener).
In a season with talented point guards all over the country, it would be easy to miss out on Semaj Christon, and that would be a pity.
The sophomore standout’s Musketeers team will struggle to make the NCAA tournament, but Christon himself is a special talent who could well jump to the NBA in the spring.
At 6’3” and blessed with serious scoring punch in addition to his playmaking skills, Christon fits the current prototype for point guards at the next level.
He’ll get a great opportunity to put his team on the map on Tuesday night, when Xavier hosts March Madness-bound Tennessee.
Even though he’s suspended until January for academic troubles, Chris Walker is poised to be Florida’s top individual weapon as a freshman.
The electrifying power forward outjumped Andrew Wiggins to win the dunk contest at the McDonald’s All-American festivities.
Walker isn’t the most polished player, but his sheer speed and leaping ability will shine in Florida’s aggressive transition offense.
He’s also going to make plenty of highlight reels on defense, where he'll earn a spot among the SEC’s top shot-blocking threats this year.
A 6’8”, 290-pound bulldozer, Davante Gardner puts on a clinic in low-post positioning every night. The Marquette senior is a coach’s dream in another way, as he boasts one of the top free-throw percentages (.835 last year) of any big man in the nation.
Over and above all of that, though, Gardner plays the game with more unbridled emotion than anyone in college hoops.
Even fans who pall at the defense-oriented slugfests Marquette prefers will relish the joy Gardner radiates whenever his Golden Eagles are winning (which should be often in 2013-14).
As much fun as it is to see the superstar athletes who fill power-conference rosters, one of the joys of college basketball is spotting the better-hidden talents—Cleanthony Early, Stephen Curry—who turn mid-major programs into postseason Cinderellas.
One of this year’s leading candidates for that role is Jerrelle Benimon. At 6’8”, 245 pounds, the former Georgetown transfer has the power to bang with big-name forwards and the skill to transcend his team’s anonymity.
Benimon was the third-leading rebounder in the nation a year ago while also leading the Tigers in scoring and assists, and he’ll make sure his team doesn’t get outmuscled in March.
One of three Spartans to earn a double-double in the team’s season opener, Adreian Payne is set to make those a regular feature of his senior year.
The 6’10”, 245-pound center has the power to compete in the Big Ten and the quickness to make a splash in the NBA after the year is done.
Payne was already an elite rebounder last season (7.6 boards per game while sharing the frontcourt with Derrick Nix), and his improved mid-range jumper has turned him into a serious scoring option.
Now that Nix is gone, he’s the main interior threat for one of the top contenders to cut down the nets in April.
Briante Weber—already diving on the floor for every chance at the ball—will be the most exciting single-digit scorer in college basketball this season.
The VCU point guard isn’t going to take (or make) many shots, but he’ll have a chance to set up plenty of highlight-reel finishes on the fast-paced Rams.
Most important to his team, though, will be the fast breaks he starts with his superhuman defensive aggressiveness.
He’s averaged more than two steals per game off the bench (!) in his first two seasons, and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down after racking up five more in the season-opening rout of Illinois State.
How many freshmen can say that their coach benched a 7-foot starting center to get them into the lineup?
Aaron Gordon isn’t the only reason Kaleb Tarczewski is now a reserve for Arizona, but he’s certainly the biggest one—and the one who will put up the most impressive numbers for the Final Four hopefuls in Tucson.
Gordon has opened his career in style, earning double-doubles in both of Arizona’s first two games. The same leaping ability that makes him an unstoppable dunker has also helped him swat five shots in his brief career.
Only in the Big Ten could a shooting guard open the season with a double-double in points and rebounds and not have it come as a surprise.
Gary Harris is one of the toughest backcourt players in the nation, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t an explosive offensive weapon in his own right.
Harris shot .411 from three-point range as a freshman, and his 20-point outburst against McNeese State suggests that he might be headed for a bigger role in the Spartans’ offense this year.
If he can keep his scoring consistent (not the strongest part of his game last season), he’s got the talent to earn All-American honors.
Defense may not have as many fans as offense, but anyone who enjoys seeing it played at its highest level can’t afford to miss out on Aaron Craft.
The Ohio State senior may never get to show off his talents in the NBA—he’s not much of a scorer, despite his game-winning trey against Iowa State in March—but he’s the best defender in the college game for the second year in a row.
Craft has averaged two steals per game (or better) in all three of his seasons as a Buckeye, and he’s forced far more turnovers than even that figure can reflect.
As an added bonus, he’ll also get to dish out plenty of eye-opening alley-oops to LaQuinton Ross and Sam Thompson this year.
One of the stories of 2013’s NCAA tournament was the evolution of Mitch McGary from bench-bound freshman to postseason hero.
Although a sore back has him sidelined at the moment, the 6’10” powerhouse is set to be the most productive and valuable member of a stellar Wolverines front line.
McGary’s inexhaustible energy makes him one of the best (and most watchable) rebounders in the country, and he thrives on the putback opportunities created by Michigan’s jump shooters.
He’s also a gutty defender and respectable offensive weapon who might remind some fans of a discount version of North Carolina icon Tyler Hansbrough.
Andrew Harrison’s college career is only two games old, and he’s already shown more offensive versatility than plenty of SEC veterans.
He’s been a distributor (five assists against UNC-Asheville) and a scorer (13 points against Northern Kentucky). He’s been a driver (nine free-throw tries in his debut) and a jump shooter (2-for-3 from beyond the arc on Sunday).
Add in the exceptional physical tools of the 6’6”, 215-pound PG, and there’s something for everyone to appreciate in Kentucky’s latest floor general.
As a 6’1” point guard, Shabazz Napier has already recorded his first triple-double of the season: 14 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists against Yale.
For any fans who don’t already know, that performance should provide an idea of both the talent and the toughness of UConn’s senior floor leader.
Napier shifted from distributor to primary scorer on last year’s rebuilding Huskies, but now he leads an experienced offense that will let him play both roles to the hilt.
On top of everything else, the quick-handed guard is a fearsome defender who grabbed a career-best 2.0 steals per game as a junior.
At this rate, Julius Randle could have SEC Player of the Year honors wrapped up before SEC play even begins. The most celebrated of Kentucky’s six McDonald’s All-American freshmen has begun his career by living up to his prodigious hype.
Against two admittedly overmatched opponents, Randle has racked up a pair of impressive double-doubles, totaling 45 points and 29 boards in his first two starts.
He’ll get his first real test in Tuesday’s showdown with No.2 Michigan State, and don’t be surprised if he continues that double-double streak even against the mighty Spartans.
Arizona State hasn’t even shown up in the AP rankings since 2008-09, so fans outside the Pacific time zone may not have an easy time catching one of Jahii Carson’s games. Then again, they’re still better off than defenders trying to catch Jahii Carson.
The Sun Devils’ sophomore point guard is as fast with the ball in his hands as any player in college hoops.
Deadly as he is in transition, he still creates plenty of points (his own and his teammates’) against supposedly set defenses that still can’t keep the hyper-quick 5’10” floor general in front of them.
Expect the debate over the nation’s top freshman—Jabari Parker vs. Andrew Wiggins vs. Julius Randle—to last all season. Parker, for his part, has a legitimate shot at ACC Player of the Year honors as the top talent on the high-powered Blue Devils.
Even playing out of position at power forward, the 6’8” freshman will get plenty of chances to show off his impressive defense and silky jump shot.
Not every game will go as smoothly as his 8-for-10, 22-point showcase against Davidson, but he does so many things well that he can't be kept down for long, either.
One of the best reasons to watch Russ Smith this season is to support a dying breed: the college basketball star who actually wants to stay in college.
Smith dazzled as the leading scorer for last year’s national champs but passed up early entry to the NBA in favor of defending the Cardinals’ title.
In addition, Smith is a good bet (for the second year in a row) to lead the country in did-you-see-that circus shots.
He gets fast-break points in bunches, but the baskets everyone remembers are the improbable scoops by a 6’0” guard challenging 6’11” centers as the shot clock winds down.
On Monday, Doug McDermott had his first game of 35-plus points in 2013-14. It won’t be the last.
McDermott is the most unstoppable offensive force in the country, a two-time All-American who shoots with jaw-dropping accuracy despite being double- and triple-teamed every time he gets the ball.
No player is a better bet to lead the nation in scoring, and no player is more of a sure thing to land on the first-team All-American roster yet again.
Anyone who’s followed the college hoops offseason at all has heard plenty about Andrew Wiggins. Now that the nation’s top-ranked recruit (and son of former NBAer Mitchell) has arrived on the court, it’s time to see whether he’s been worth all the buildup.
Despite a middling debut against Louisiana-Monroe, the answer is ultimately going to be in the affirmative.
Wiggins—who, to be fair, did score a team-high 16 points in his first college game—is a multi-threat SF with the kind of athleticism that has him at the forefront of the discussion for next June’s top draft pick.
No player in college basketball is more ready to make an impact in the NBA than Marcus Smart.
The 6’4”, 220-pound point guard attacks Big 12 lanes the way Cowboy legends in another sport—Thurman Thomas, Barry Sanders—once attacked Big Eight defenses.
Smart is a world-class defender (second nationally in steals a year ago) and a great rebounder from the backcourt, but he’s also a bona fide point guard.
He turned in one of last year’s great displays of leadership when he carried the Cowboys to an upset win on the road at Kansas—do you want to miss what he has in store for an encore?